Most of you, I assume, are familiar with the story of the frog and the pot of boiling water. For the uninitiated, it states that your average frog, when placed in an average pot of 212-degree water, will wisely and immediately hop out. But, the anecdote continues, if you put that same amphibian in a pot of room-tempeature water and slowly raise the heat, the poor critter won’t notice any change until it’s too late and your boiled frog legs are ready to enjoy. Now, I’ve never tried this theory myself (I’ve never tried frog legs, either, but that’s a matter for another time) nor do I recommend doing so, but regular viewers of cable TV’s Independent Film Channel must be feeling a little croakish themselves over the last two weeks. That’s when the channel, which debuted in 1994 as a place to watch non-mainstream American and foreign movies uncut and uninterrupted, made the decision to start having commercial breaks in its films.
It’s a change with which that frog could certainly sympathize. After all, for the last five years IFC (as it’s officially been re-branded, in the disturbing pseudo-hip fashion that also led the Sci-Fi Channel to dub itself “SyFy”) has been running promotional spots in between programming and featuring themed nights sponsored by the likes of Heineken, Target and Volkswagen. The next step–one that came alongside the increased airing of such “niche” TV series as Arrested Development, Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Undeclared–was to put on regular commercials for Geico, Verizon and even freecreditsomething.com (you know, the site that the restaurant worker dressed as a pirate sings about). Annoying? Perhaps, but viewers such as myself just chalked it up to the price of keeping a cable channel operating. After all, we thought, at least they’re putting them after shows and not in the middle of movies, like AMC began doing several years earlier…forgetting that the same company, Rainbow Media, runs both AMC and IFC.
Well, the de-evolution of IFC became complete sometime last week. I was flipping channels Monday night and paused to catch a little of Pulp Fiction (how many of you out there also catch yourselves watching films on TV that you already own on video and could presumably see anytime, just “because they’re there”?), and no sooner are hit men Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta preparing to retrieve that mysterious attache case from the ill-fated Brad and his pal “Flock of Seagulls,” than the screen fades out and I find myself instead being pitched breath mints or some such product. Thinking at first that this was some sort of bizarre programming mistake (I’m such an optimist), the next morning I tuned in for a broadcast of the Oscar-winning Spanish drama The Sea Inside and watched a quadriplegic Javier Bardem contemplating ending his life, only to have his decision put on hold so that I could hear about the fine beverages from Samuel Adams beer.
Again, this is not one of my local UHF stations or a basic cable outlet like TBS, Comedy Central or even AMC, which went from calling itself American Movie Classics to a channel that will run the likes of Navy Seals and Catwoman without a trace of irony. IFC is a “premium channel” (according to my satellite provider, at least), which means that I am paying extra for the privilege of being hawked to during the latest airing of The Usual Suspects or Dancing in the Dark. At the same time, IFC is preparing to launch a number of original series aimed at the 18-34 male demographic that will also tune in for Quentin Tarantino movies and reruns of Three Stooges shorts (Columbia mogul Harry Cohn must be laughing in his grave at the notion that short subjects made by contracted comedians for a Hollywood studio in the 1930s and ’40s are termed “independent”). Producing new programs means more money–and room in the schedule–is needed, so along with a few words from the sponsor, one shouldn’t be surprised to see fewer features as time goes on.
Obviously, this is a simple business decision on IFC’s part, and while the channel’s Facebook page is loaded with movie buffs expressing their displeasure (some in words no studio censor back in the day would allow), if their ratings don’t suffer there’s no reason to expect any change. It’s business pure and simple…just like the links in this article that will guide readers to where they can buy a movie. Still, it’s sad to think that a channel that once prided itself on offering fare made outside the commercial mainstream will now litter that fare with the very epitome of commercialism. One has to wonder, also, what the filmmakers themselves think of their work being carved up this way at a place that was supposed to be a refuge for the artistically aspiring creator. Oh, well, at least we die-hard movie watchers still have TCM and Fox Movie Channel for older titles, and for indie films there’s always the Sundance Channel. The Sundance Channel will show these motion pictures the respect that they….what’s that? Rainbow Media bought the Sundance Channel two years ago? Did someone just turn up the heat under this pot of water?